The future of the Android platform is hanging by a lawsuit, and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) ain't happy about it. And Android is but the tip of the iceberg.
You knew it was the start of a public spectacle when Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL ) filed a patent infringement suit against Google last month, claiming that the basic building blocks of the Android software package infringe on seven Java-related patents. Gaining control of that patent portfolio may have been a big reason why Oracle wanted to buy Sun Microsystems in the first place, and here's the practical implementation of that strategy: I'm pretty sure that Larry Ellison wants license payments for Android sales rather than shutting the platform down. It just makes economic sense that way for a company with nearly no skin in the mobile game today.
Well, Google is taking this opportunity to call Oracle out for being a dirty, two-faced turncoat. When Java belonged to Sun and Oracle was a mere user of the software, the company pushed Sun to publish the code under an open-source license. That all changed when Java became an Oracle property, and this case has wide implications for the tech industry at large.
"It's disappointing that after years of supporting open source, Oracle turned around to attack not just Android, but the entire open source Java community with vague software patent claims," Google told TechCrunch. "Open platforms like Android are essential to innovation, and we will continue to support the open source community to make the mobile experience better for consumers and developers alike."
No big surprise
Tibco Software (Nasdaq: TIBX ) CEO Vivek Ranadive hinted at this outcome when Oracle first placed a bid for Sun, noting that Oracle's developer-phobic attitude would harm the Java community. If Oracle can go after Android with patent claims, who knows what platform comes next? The IBM (NYSE: IBM ) WebSphere application server is built on Java technology. One of the sharpest weapons in the Red Hat (NYSE: RHT ) arsenal is its JBoss Java application server. Anywhere you look, you see Java-based platforms and their developers searching for assurance that they won't be sued next. Yeah, many of them already carry proper licenses -- but maybe they shouldn't need to.
Of course, Oracle sees things differently: "In developing Android, Google chose to use Java code without obtaining a license. Additionally, it modified the technology so it is not compliant with Java's central design principle to 'write once and run anywhere.'"
And that stone-cold meta-response only enlarges the implications of this suit. At least some of the Java code is available under the GPL open-source license, which encourages others to not only use but to also modify the code. That makes the Oracle-Google suit an important test of that license's legal validity and may become the first true test of said license in American courts.
The real battle at hand
If the GPL is declared either invalid or unenforceable, the open-source model itself becomes very difficult to support or operate under. That's terrible news for Red Hat and Citrix Systems (Nasdaq: CTXS ) , both of which use a global community of independent developers to bolster their own R&D operations.
In other words, Google is fighting the good fight for a much larger cause than just Android. Because Google doesn't collect license payments for Android, the platform could go dead today and Google wouldn't lose a nickel; in fact, the company would save money when it shuts down development and support efforts. The whole project is Google's effort to improve mobile Web experiences on every platform by pushing the technical envelope; keep Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) and others honest by building a potentially better mousetrap, and consumers will accept mobile computing much faster. Competition breeds innovation, and that's all Google is doing here. Android development might as well be accounted for as a marketing expense, as far as Google is concerned.
Angel or demon?
If you still think Google is evil, you might jump to the conclusion that the company will just settle the suit, sign a Java license, and pass the costs on to consumers through license fees. That would be the easy way out, but it'd do nothing to defend the open-source model that Google claims to hold near and dear.
I believe we'll see a very different outcome. A drawn-out and expensive battle through layer after layer of appeals and maybe even retrials should lead to either a fully open-sourced Java platform or a full jury trial that settles the matter once and for all. It will take years, and Java itself may be obsolete by the time the case is closed. But this is the right thing to do, and Google will see support from an entire industry of open-source specialists.
Would Google be insane to go through all this trouble and expense for what I just called an inconsequential business operation? In a narrow sense, yes -- but there's a much larger game afoot that Google needs to win for the survival of its very ideals. Without them, the company is dead.
Continue the discussion in the comments below -- I'm running out of breath.